The Making Of: Blast Corps
Throughout the latter half of the Nineties, all eyes were squarely focused on Rare
Retro Gamer chats to Martin Wakeley, lead designer on the explosive N64 hit Blast Corps
Published on Jan 19, 2009
. N64 owners looked upon the Twycross-based development outfit as their saviours; an extraordinary company that had single-handedly doubled the number of must-have titles for their game-starved console. Nintendo itself saw Rare as one of its closest allies; a team it could trust to cradle some of its most valuable IP. And, not before long, Microsoft would envision it as a record-breaking acquisition: $377 million in total. Whichever perspective you happened to look from, the same image remained. Rare was special.
Such a reputation isn’t made overnight, though perhaps Rare knows all too well that it can sink as fast. A consecutive string of seven N64 games, ranging from the brilliant to the breathtaking, materialised from Rare’s headquarters. Classics such as GoldenEye 007, Banjo-Kazooie, Jet Force Gemini and Perfect Dark turned Rare’s gold-trimmed logo into a stamp of guaranteed quality. That incomparable roll of gaming gems kicked off, very quietly, on 1 September 1997 with the release of a little thing called Blast Corps.
“Blast Corps was my first big project, though I suppose it wouldn’t be considered as a ‘big project’ these days”, says Martin Wakeley, who was just a young graduate when he was appointed the role of lead designer for Rare’s first N64 game. A decade since his first major project, Martin is currently busy polishing off the upcoming FPS Haze at Free Radical, and notices the tremendous difference the videogame design process has undertaken in those ten intervening years.
“During the development of Blast Corps there were never more than seven people working on the game at the same time. Most of the time it was just this core group of four of us, who were mainly graduates. That sort of thing just doesn’t happen any more.” Understandably, there is always the risk of losing the core personality of a videogame when its components are spread across a large team. Blast Corps on the other hand, crafted together by a small troupe of developers, felt like it never lost anything between its concept and release. Rare’s faith in such a raw, inexperienced team certainly paid dividends. Blast Corps achieved unanimous critical success when it was released. Its concept was original, refreshing and distinct. A Frankenstein of puzzle, racer, strategy and action game, it was common that players would bulldoze a clear pathway through obstacles at one point, and hijack a boat for use as an impromptu bridge the next.
“The concept for the game was something that Chris Stamper (cofounder of Rare) had been trying to get going for years”, explains Martin. “His famous quote was ‘If you knock down buildings, it will be fun.’ Obviously, the challenge for us always, was finding a reason to knock down buildings. So we came up with what we referred to as a ‘Constantly Moving Object.’ It helped to channel the gameplay and was used to set a time limit.”
That ‘Constantly Moving Object’ became an unstoppable nuclear missile carrier, which – the story goes – had to crawl though the game’s wealth of locations without touching, bumping or even grazing a single building, fence or hedge along the way. Essentially it was a physical clock, a virtual progress bar, and an atomic Lemming rolled into one.
Armed with a selection of odd bulldozers, the player had to obliterate everything to forge a clear path. Not every obstacle was susceptible to straightforward smashing; players often needed to keep calm when faced with a seemingly invincible obstacle, and would need to think fast in working out how to destroy it. It was this fusion of puzzle elements and frantic gotta-smash-it-all action that made Blast Corps such a distinct package, and a game very difficult to pigeonhole into a genre.
In a stroke of genius, players could return to the cleared levels, this time without the time restraints of the missile carrier. Suddenly that frantic action-cumpuzzler became an exploration game, one where Rare had meticulously tucked away the most hard to reach secrets, and one that could satisfy even the most obsessive of completist tendencies. But there was still more to the game. At times, a cleared pathway caused bonus levels to appear on the Stage Select screen. These ranged from a ‘smash everything’ time-attack to a Super Sprint-esque circuit racing game. Now, with the benefit of ten years of hindsight, how would Martin best classify such an unclassifiable game?
“It’s hard to say, though I’ve always felt that Blast Corps was a puzzle game. I can completely understand why people would consider it an action game, or a racer, and so on. One of my personal inspirations was a game from Nintendo called Donkey Kong ’94. The premise was that you had all the elements needed to solve each puzzle from the beginning of every level. The challenge was working out what order to implement them in. Fundamentally, that is what Blast Corps is.”
Whereas Donkey Kong 94’s puzzlesolving elements consisted of humble hammers and switch boxes, Blast Corps’ puzzle-solving ‘tools’ came in gloriously destructive and downright odd shapes and sizes. Oddities, such as a motorbike strapped with rocket launchers, a pint-sized gymnastic robot and a rocket-powered dune buggy were all typical of Blast Corps’ collection of vehicles to use. The fan’s favourite was undoubtedly the J-Bomb, a house-sized mech with a rocket pack strapped to its back. Players could freely hover through the sky, à la Pilotwings, and dive feetfirst into buildings and skyscrapers. It was essentially Mario’s ground-pound manoeuvre on a seismic scale, and felt just as satisfying as it sounds.
“Our lead artist at the time, Ricky Berwick who is now with Codemasters, was just fantastic. He came up with some really cool ideas for the vehicles and we basically retrofitted them into the play dynamic afterwards.” As ill-advised as it sounds to reverse-engineer a play mechanic into a group of characters, it couldn’t have worked better for Martin and his team. It meant that the game would feature some truly unique vehicles that would be impossible to envision if built from practicalities.
“My favourite vehicle would have to be The Backlash. Its mechanic was borrowed from Mario Kart 64’s power slide, it was criticised heavily and I remember defending it for many hours. I think what frustrated people was how it was really hard to pull off a successful slide-smash. Personally I found the challenge immensely satisfying.”
And it’s not surprising that Martin gets his satisfaction from a good challenge. Tucked away behind Blast Corps’ main game, a selection of cruel, demanding and downright impossible challenges awaited the player. When ploughing through the game, players would soon begin to realise that they were given medals for completing levels within certain time limits. Ranging from bronze, silver, gold and the fabled platinum, as a player’s collection of medals unintentionally grew – sometimes by pure chance – it was only a matter of time before they all fell for the compelling allure of earning them all; hook, line and sinker. Unfortunately, earning a platinum medal is about as rare as sinking a hole-in-one. So, why did Martin and his team impose such merciless challenges?
“There wasn’t a chance that players could get all the medals, it was just insane. The platinum thing came about from our QA department. I set the times for the golds, but they wanted a representation to show how well it could be done. It escalated a bit and the Japanese and US QA departments got involved, so it became this intercontinental play off, each QA department outdoing the other. Some of the times were crazy. In truth, I could only get four platinums. Just as a word of warning, if you do get all the platinums it just says ‘you can stop now!’ which I thought was funny, not sure if anyone got to see it though.”
Blast Corps’ ruthless difficulty curve didn’t hamper its critical acclaim, it was adored by critics and gamers alike. Sadly, its commercial reception didn’t quite reflect its critical success. “I was a bit pissed off when Blast Corps was released. Sales weren’t as high as we imagined. Selling games on the N64 was like shooting fish in a barrel. When you released a title there was so little competition it was almost guaranteed to do well. But I think a legend has grown up that Blast Corps sold nothing at all, which simply isn’t true. In retrospect, things weren’t too shabby at all. We hit number one in the all-format charts and did reasonably well in Japan. We sold close to a million copies of a game that took just over a year to make with a tiny team. You really can’t complain when you look at it like that.”
And in retrospect, Martin has absolutely no regrets about the time he worked on Blast Corps. If anything, he took it for granted, he tells us. He remembers it as one of the most exciting and invigorating times to be a developer. “I remember going to Space World ’95 when Nintendo unveiled Mario 64”, he recalls. “That game made a big difference for me personally. In all honesty, I couldn’t ever grasp how the N64 controller’s analogue stick would work until I saw Mario 64. That was a turning point, it was the first ‘true’ 3D game I’d ever seen. I assumed that all developers were making N64 games this way! Just watching it in motion and meeting Mr Miyamoto really excited and inspired me to do something great, it was a fantastic time to be a developer.”
Blast Corps was undeniably a product of Martin’s exhilarating enthusiasm. It was a game filled from head-to-toe with a great wealth of eccentric ideas and quirky humour. From its jovial music and light-hearted take on saving the world to nuclear mass destruction (bearing in mind how easy it would have been to adopt a grave and sombre approach to such a topic), it was obvious that Martin and his team enjoyed making the game. It comes as no surprise, then, that Martin has always toyed with the idea of making a sequel.
“I had ideas for a sequel; the game would have been based on a persistent city environment that would deviate into more of an action-based combat game. I don’t think there’s any way you can push the gameplay much further though; Blast Corps really was a one-trick pony.”
Perhaps ‘one-trick pony’ is the easiest way to remember Blast Corps. Labelling it as such however, doesn’t do it justice, as it fails to take into account the sheer dedication, talent and enthusiasm of its creators. The term doesn’t explain how loony it could be at times, and it overlooks how the game was pushed as far as it would go. However, when telling us a story about a decision he and his team had to make during development, Martin unintentionally sums up Blast Corps perfectly:
“One of the vehicles, The Thunderfist, was a robot with one arm and a couple of severed wires for the other, he would roll into a ball and punch his way through buildings. But his one arm wasn’t an aesthetic choice at all. In adding everything we could into the game, we soon found out that we had completely run dry of memory. Quite literally, we didn’t have enough to give him a second arm. But we didn’t mind so much, he still looked really cool without it.”